Dragons remarkable turnaround a testament to players’ character

Amongst the drama and intrigue that currently surrounds the NRL transfer market fiasco, one quite remarkable story-line has gone largely unnoticed by the Rugby League community.

The St. George Illawarra Dragons, given next to no hope of winning the premiership just two months ago, sit top of the premiership table with just one loss to their name. It’s not quite the Leicester City fairy-tale, particularly when you consider that we are just six rounds into the season and the Dragons have’t yet taken on the competition heavyweights, but it is a miraculous turn of events given the disastrous state of club just a few months ago.

Let’s look back at the events that led to their demise.

The Dragons finished season 2016 in eleventh position. The club was in disarray. Fans were campaigning for the coach and chief executive to be thrown out of the club like a drunkard being tossed out of a nightclub following a booze fueled brawl. And criticism was being hurled at the halves, namely Widdop and Marshall, like stones from all and sundry. The problem began and ended with them.

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But as time has passed, some seven months now, the Dragons have become a more professional outfit and winning games has quickly become a habit.

The real test will come when they face the Cowboys this weekend, and then the Roosters followed a week later by the Storm. Only in the aftermath of these encounters will we know whether the Dragons are capable of challenging for the crown in 2017.

They’ve shown signs of having what it takes to make it to ANZ Stadium in October. Against a rampant and in-form Sea Eagles outfit last weekend they ran out 35 to 10 victors in a game many expected the home side to run away with like a cat burglar stealing a TV in the dark of night.

So what has been the catalyst for the dramatic turnaround from chumps to, dare I say, champs?

It’s hard to look past their pack, in particularly the big names – Vaughan, De Belin, Frizell, Thompson and even Packer – who are dragging the club kicking and screaming into a new era.

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Much of the Dragons game last year was based around defence, and it needed to be given they found points harder to come by than a property listed for less than a million dollars in the city’s CBD.

But so far this year, the big men have provided the go forward and given the Dragons field position, allowing the halves to play close to the line instead of trying to create something from an impossible range. And hasn’t Widdop flourished.

The old story in Rugby League goes that members of the cities’ football club never have to empty their pockets for a coffee again once they’ve payed their dues; such is the admiration for their skill. Rumour has it Balmain legends Steve Roach and Paul Sironen are still being offered free drinks on the peninsula by overawed fans clinging onto the success of the late eighties. Gareth Widdop had no such luck around two months ago and was made to pay for every coffee, muffin and breakfast burrito he ever consumed, plus an extra surcharge. Now the race is on to snap up his signature before another club swoops in on him.

This is quite the turnaround but he is far from the only player that has experienced some success under the Dragons’ new style.

Former St George Illawarra hooker Mitch Rein labelled the Dragons a boring football side after he left the club on bad terms. One must wonder whether this was purely him airing his dirty laundry or whether there was truth to his claims.

But since Cameron McInnes has come along to spice up the Dragons attack, nothing about it has been remotely sleep inducing. His presence around the ruck has added an extra dimension to the Dragons game that opposition defensive units have found difficult to counteract.

Under Marshall, Widdop and Rein, St George Illawarra’s kicking game was almost non existent, and when it was, nothing came of it. McInnes has added run and carry out of dummy-half, been as solid as the rock of Gibralter in defence, but, and perhaps most importantly, has provided grubbers in behind the defence that have either led to try scoring opportunities or forced repeat sets.

Again, these opportunities only arise when the forwards are doing their job.

I cannot end this column without mentioning the transformation in Lafai’s game because, while he hasn’t earned the accolades or the plaudits that the likes of Widdop, McCrone, Frizell and Vaughan have, he has played a pivitol role in the Dragon’s reawakening.

Two weeks ago against the West Tigers it was his vision and strength that sent Nightingale over for a hat-trick. Sure, none of this would have been possible if it weren’t for the brilliance of Widdop in the lead up play, but it was stunning Rugby League nonetheless, delivered by a player regaining the confidence that saw him play a vital role in the Bulldog’s march to the Grand Final in 2014.

Wingers are only as good as their inside man after all.

Having said all this, it takes just one poor performance for the bubble to burst and the cycle to start all over again. It’s the way the Dragons bounce back from narrow, or damaging, defeats that will decide whether they are genuine challengers.

Which clubs are in the Hunt for Cronk?

So, Cooper Cronk and the Melbourne Storm have parted ways. A nightmare for some and a dream for the nine or so Sydney clubs that will soon begin battling it out for the contract of the world’s best halfback.

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Crock announces his Sydney move to the media. Photo: Fox Sports.

The big three, outside of State of Origin, are no longer.

It’s a sad sight but who are we to stand in the way of love.

The question now is where will Cronk end up in 2018 and which club does he best suit?

Perhaps a more appropriate question still is which club will benefit most from his services?

Here are the clubs in line to make a play for the 2016 Dally M medallist.

Parramatta Eels:

When news first broke of Cronk’s move to Sydney yesterday afternoon, Parramatta was one of the first clubs linked to his signature. But with last year’s salary cap dramas still lingering like the smell of two week old rubbish, it’s difficult to see them making a substantial bid, if any.

Corey Norman and Clint Gutherson have been in the halves across the first five rounds of the competition, but haven’t quite provided the spark the Eels require. They remain a work in progress, not a settled combination, so there are grounds for placing an offer for Cronk. But the 2018 cap, which is a bigger mystery than the gunman on the grassy knoll, will force Parramatta’s hand and see them drop out of the contest.

St George Illawarra Dragons:

The signing of Ben Hunt all but rules the joint venture out of the race, while the form of Gareth Widdop so far this year means there is no need to fix what isn’t currently broke.

Sydney Roosters: 

The Roosters are the other strong favourites tipped to lure Cronk like hunters in the African savanna.

The tri-colours have experienced great success with their newly formed halves pairing of Pearce and Keary, but much like the Eels, they aren’t a permanent fixture yet and are still in the beta stage of their partnership. This leaves room for Cronk to slot in alongside Pearce to form what could only be described as a halves pairing plucked from heaven.

The Roosters have 12 players coming off contract at the end of the 2017 season, leaving plenty of space to squeeze Cronk under the cap.

Cronulla Sharks:

James Maloney quipped that he may be out of a job when he heard Cronk was leaving Melbourne. But in truth, he has nothing to worry about.

Maloney and Townsend took the Cronulla Sharks to a premiership no less than seven months ago and sending one of them packing would be an unnecessary and unsavoury move.

Townsend is off contract at the end of 2017, giving the Sharks an outside chance of landing Cronk’s signature. But boy would it be a sucker punch to the gut for the Cronulla halfback.

Much depends on where the Sharks finish this season on the competition ladder.

The no vacancy sign will soon be put up. Surely.

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No longer will we see a Cronk pass to Slater. Photo: ABC

South Sydney Rabbitohs:

Cody Walker was re-signed for three years at the end of 2016 while his partner in crime, Adam Reynolds, did likewise, committing to South Sydney until 2021.

It seems highly unlikely that the Rabbitohs list managers would suddenly feel inclined to head in a different direction having made a choice to secure their future.

Walker has spent some time at Fullback though, so there is the potential for him to be shifted back into the number one. Alex Johnston is yet to sign a contract extension with South Sydney meaning this combination could well come to fruition.

It seems unlikely though. Rabbitohs are the big outsiders.

Newcastle Knights:

The Knights lost Jarred Mullen to a drugs ban at the beginning of the season, allowing youngster Brock Lamb to make his first grade debut. And what a fine job he has done.

Trent Hodkinson still has a year and a half to go on his contract. So, needless to say, he will not be the man making way for Cronk, while Lamb, given his inexperience, will have his head firmly on the chopping block if the Knights were to make a bid.

Newcastle are currently owned by the NRL though so it’s easy to see them being outbid by one of the financially stable clubs.

Canterbury Bulldogs:

If the scramble to sign Cooper Cronk was a horse race, the Bulldogs would be unbackable favourites.

Mbye and Reynolds have come under great pressure from supporters this year following a series of poor performances, leaving the door ajar for one of them to be sent packing.

No doubt both of them will be slipping an extra prayer into their evening’s grace. They are the two most vulnerable players in the league at the moment, outside of ‘they who shall not be named’ at the Wests Tigers.

Wests Tigers:

Again, the Tigers are in contention for Cronk, if for no other reason than because both halves are coming off contract at the end of this season.

The ‘Big Four’ have the board bent over a barrel, and they might just get their way one more time. A new coach and a board that would be hard pressed managing a small business might be reluctant to make any radical changes given recent events. Even if they would drastically change the fortunes of the football club.

Penrith Panthers:

No chance, simply no chance. And why would there be when the development of Te Maire Martin and Nathan Cleary has progressed into its second year. They are two of the most promising playmakers in the competition and Penrith have their heart set on keeping them together for as long as it takes them to form a Thurston/ Cronk like partnership.

Manly Warringah Sea Eagles:

Blake Green has just signed with Manly and is working like a charm while Daly Cherry-Evans is still earning $1.3 million dollars a year. They have been worth every cent across the last few rounds of this season and Manly won’t be stumping up a bucket load of cash to sign a single player.

Pass.